Is celibacy “good news” for gay Christians? That’s the way the question is often asked, and very poignantly, too (for instance, in the recent posts by Stephen Long at his blog Sacred Tension and also by Rowan Williams: “In what sense does the Church actually proclaim good news to the homosexually inclined person…?”). The point, usually, seems to be this: If we’re going to ask gay Christians to give up gay sex, that self-denial must be demonstrably good for us. We need to be able to point to ways that celibacy enriches us and contributes to our thriving, if we’re going to continue to ask it of gay people.
And there’s something unquestionably right about this. The church is called to promote joy and flourishing. Part of our life together as believers is about trying to find ways of living that enable Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel—“my yoke is easy and my burden is light”—to be felt. If gay Christians are pursuing celibacy in our churches, we are right to want to make that experience one that is nurtured by friendship and various other forms of community and able to be practiced with peace, courage, and hope. We are right to want to eradicate shame and isolation. (And we’re also right to critique the ways the church is captive to certain “family values” which often amount to little more than an idolatry of marriage and the “nuclear family.”)
But I wonder if there isn’t something unhelpful about this line of thought, too. When the New Testament uses the term “gospel”—“good news”—it isn’t talking primarily about celibacy or marriage or any other form of human activity. The gospel is an announcement of what God has done and will do—about God establishing his reign in the world, defeating sin and death, through the work of Jesus Christ (see, e.g., Mark 1:14-15; Romans 1:1-5). It is about the forgiveness of sins and the hope of the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).
According to the New Testament, no human response—whether it be celibate singleness or faithful marriage and parenting or any other kind of obedient ascesis—is part of the “good news” itself. Rather, I think, the proper way of framing the relationship between the “good news” and our trusting acknowledgment of it goes something like this: God is reestablishing his reign over the fallen creation and has determined that the end will be a great wedding feast celebrating Christ and his Bride, the Church. That is the “good news.” Our response to that good news may then take differing shapes. With regard to our sexual lives, for instance, we may marry in order to point to the coming wedding supper of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32; Revelation 19:6-8) or we may choose to be celibate in order to witness to the coming new creation in which “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30; 19:12). But in either case, the lives that we’re called to in response to the announcement of God’s reign are not themselves what the New Testament means by “good news.”
So where does that leave us? Should we expect that while God’s reign in Christ is “good,” our responses to that reign may be “bad” for us? This is a more complex question than the one that’s often asked and may take us closer to the heart of the matter.
I’m preparing to teach the Sermon on the Mount this semester at my seminary, and I’ve been pondering again the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. The situations that Jesus’ hearers find themselves in—being poor in spirit, being mournful, being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and so forth—aren’t, I think, the content of the “blessing” Jesus is pronouncing on them. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” he doesn’t mean that a life of meekness is, in itself, always a visibly “blessed” way to live. Rather, he means—as the verse goes on to say—that those who are meek “shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Inheriting the earth is the blessing; the practice of meekness, considered in isolation, is not the blessing. To be sure, there is good news here—Jesus is promising to bless people—but the good news can’t be tied directly to the current conditions that Jesus’ hearers find themselves in. In the present, before the fulfillment of the promise of blessing, the habits of meekness may well land you in a world of pain (cf. Matthew 26:63). And I think we could say something similar about the celibacy of many gay Christians.
When celibacy brings with it loneliness and fear of the future and struggle and tension, I certainly believe I should pray for those things to be removed and look for their removal in Christian community—but I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m experiencing them. Trusting in the “good news” in the midst of a still-fallen world leads to a strange kind of existence, one that is full of paradox and mixed experiences: something like what Paul described as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
So what’s the upshot of all this? Can we say that the Christian practice of celibacy is “good news” for gay people? I want to believe that celibacy can be experienced as a good thing—insofar as it’s a way of pointing to the coming kingdom of God. But in another sense, it may well not be experientially “good,” at least in the short term, and that shouldn’t be our only measure of whether it’s our right response to the gospel. Responding to the good news of the redemption of world is something we do in hope, without fully seeing the redemption we believe is already accomplished. And that’s true for every one of us, gay or straight, married or celibate. That’s the shape of the Christian life under the conditions of the already-but-not-yet-fully-arrived reign of God.
If those of us who are advocating for the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality are heard to say “that joy within celibacy is sustainable, maintainable, and achievable for anyone who reaches for it… that, if someone is faithful, tries hard enough, and does the right things, a life of sustainable celibacy will be theirs,” we need to back up and recognize that somewhere along the way, and maybe through our own fault, our message has been garbled. Yes, celibacy is the response many of us feel we must make to the “good news” of God’s gift in Christ. But no, in and of itself, it isn’t the content of the “good news” we have to share. Celibacy is not the gospel.
Wesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter: @WesleyHill.